Biopharmconsortium Blog

Expert commentary from Haberman Associates biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting.

Posts filed under: Rare diseases

Strimvelis (GSK2696273), a gene therapy for a deadly immunodeficiency in children, expected to reach the European market in mid-2016

Adenosine deaminase

Adenosine deaminase

Our recent book-length report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization was published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute in November 2015. As indicated by its title, the report focuses on clinical-stage gene therapy programs that are aimed at commercialization, and the companies that are carrying out these programs.

Until recently, gene therapy was thought of as a scientifically-premature field with little prospect of near-term commercialization. However, as outlined in our report, numerous companies have been pursuing clinical programs aimed at regulatory approval and commercialization. These efforts have attracted the interest of investors and of large pharma and biotech companies. As a result, several gene therapy specialty companies have gone public, and some companies in this sector have attracted large pharma or biotech partnerships.

A key question addressed in our report is whether any gene therapies might be expected to reach the U.S. and/or European markets in the near term. In the last chapter (Chapter 9) of the report, we included a table (Table 9.1) of eight gene therapy products that we deemed to be likely to reach the market before 2020.

One of these products, uniQure/Chiesi’s Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec), a treatment for the ultra-rare condition lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD), was approved in Europe in 2012. It is thus the “first commercially available gene therapy” in a regulated market. However, uniQure has dropped plans to seek FDA approval for Glybera.

As we discussed in our December 17, 2015 article on this blog, another product listed in Table 9.1, Spark Therapeutics’ SPK-RPE65, is expected to reach the U.S. market by 2017. SPK-RPE65 is a gene therapy for the rare retinal diseases Leber congenital amaurosis and retinitis pigmentosa type 20. As of March 9, 2016, Spark is preparing to file a Biologics License Application (BLA) for SPK-RPE65 in the second half of 2016. SPK-RPE65 may be the first gene therapy approved in the U.S. Spark also plans to file a marketing authorization application (MAA) in Europe in early 2017.

Now comes an announcement of the impending European marketing of a third product listed in Table 9.1, GlaxoSmithKline/San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (TIGET)’s GSK2696273, now called Strimvelis. On April 1, 2016, the The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended the approval of Strimvelis in Europe, for the treatment of children with ADA severe combined immune deficiency (ADA-SCID) for whom no matching bone marrow donor is available. ADA-SCID is a type of SCID caused by mutations in the gene for adenosine deaminase (ADA).

Approximately 15 children per year are born in Europe with ADA-SCID, which leaves them unable to make certain white blood cell that are involved in the immune system. ADA-SCID is an autosomal recessive condition that accounts for about 15% of cases of SCID. ADA deficiency results in the intracellular buildup of toxic metabolites that are especially deleterious to the highly metabolically active T and B cells. These cells thus fail to mature, resulting in life-threatening immune deficiency. Children with ADA-SCID rarely survive beyond two years unless their immune function is rescued via bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor. Thus Strimvelis is indicated for children for whom no compatible donor is available.

As we discussed in our report, the development of therapies for ADA-SCID goes back to the earliest days of gene therapy, in 1990. Interestingly, Strimvelis (GSK2696273) is based on a Moloney murine leukemia virus (MoMuLV) gammaretrovirus vector carrying a functional gene for ADA. In other applications (for example, gene therapy for another type of SCID called SCID-X1), the use of MoMuLV vectors resulted in a high level of leukemia induction. As a result, researchers have developed other types of retroviral vectors (such as those based on  lentiviruses) that do not have this issue. Nevertheless, Strimvelis Mo-MuLV-ADA gene therapy has been show to be safe over 13 years of clinical testing, with no leukemia induction. As discussed in our report, researchers hypothesize that ADA deficiency may create an unfavorable environment for leukemogenesis.

Delivery of Strimvelis requires the isolation of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) from each patient, followed by ex vivo infection of the cells with the MoMuLV-ADA construct. The transformed cells are then infused into the patient, resulting in restoration of a functional immune system.

With the EMA recommendation of approval for Strimvelis, it is expected that the therapy will be approved by the European Commission approval in July 2016.

Strimvelis is the result of a 2010 partnership between GSK and Italy’s San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy (TIGET), and the biotechnology company MolMed, which is based at TIGET in Milan. MolMed is currently the only approved site in the world for production of and ex vivo therapy with Strimvelis. However, GSK is looking into ways of expanding the numbers of sites that will be capable of and approved for administration of the therapy. GSK’s plans will include seeking FDA approval for expansion into the U.S. market.

Moreover, as discussed in our report, under the GSK/TIGET agreement,  GSK has exclusive options to develop six further applications of ex vivo stem cell therapy, using gene transfer technology developed at TIGET. GSK has already exercised its option to develop two further programs in two other rare diseases. Both are currently in clinical trials. Because of the issue of leukemogenesis with most gammaretrovirus-based gene therapies, these other gene therapy products are based on the use of lentiviral vectors.

Given the tiny size of the market for each of these therapies, pricing is an important—and tricky—issue. For example, treatment with UniQure’s Glybera, as of 2014, cost $1 million. As of now, GSK is not putting a price on Stremvelis, but reportedly the therapy will cost “very significantly less than $1 million” if and when it is approved.


The success of researchers and companies in moving three of the eight gene therapies listed in Table 9.1 toward regulatory approval suggests that gene therapy will attain at least some degree of near term commercial success. However, Glybera and Strimvelis are for ultra-rare diseases, and are thus not expected to command large markets.

However, as discussed in our previous blog article, SPK-RPE65 may achieve peak sales ranging from $350 million to $900 million. And as discussed in our report, some of the remaining therapies listed in Table 9.1, especially those involved in treatment of blood diseases or cancer, may achieve sales in the billions of dollars. Thus, depending on the timing and success of clinical trials and regulatory submissions of these therapies, gene therapy may demonstrate a degree of near-term commercial success that few thought was possible just five years ago.

Meanwhile, even therapies that address rare or ultra-rare diseases will be expected to save the lives or the sight of patients who receive these products.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Gene therapy for hemophilia—an update


Tsarevich Alexei of Russia

Tsarevich Alexei of Russia

The boy pictured above is Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich of Russia, who lived between 1904 and 1918, and was the heir to the throne of Imperial Russia. He is arguably the most famous hemophiliac in history.

Alexei suffered from hemophilia B, a form of hemophilia that was passed from Queen Victoria of Britain through two of her five daughters to the royal families of Spain, Germany, and Russia. He inherited the disease—which is X-linked and recessive—from his mother, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

During Alexei’s lifetime, there was no good treatment for hemophilia. So Empress Alexandra turned to the charlatan Grigori Rasputin, a supposed “holy man” whom she thought had the power to heal the boy. The relationship between the Empress and Rasputin, and the disastrous rule by the two during September 1915—February 1917, led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the eventual rise of Bolshevism. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family, including Tsarevich Alexei, who was one month shy of his 14th birthday.

Current treatments for hemophilia

In 2016, there are much better approved therapies for hemophilia than in Alexei’s day. Hemophilias include hemophilia A and B. Both are X-linked recessive disorders, which thus affect mainly males. Hemophilia A involves a deficiency in factor VIII (FVIII),  and hemophilia B involves a deficiency in factor IX (FIX). Both of these are clotting factors made in the liver. Hemophilia occurs in approximately one in 5,000 live births, and hemophilia A is four times as common as hemophilia B.

Management of hemophilia—from the early 1990s to today—is based on the use of recombinant FVIII or recombinant FIX, for the treatment of hemophilia A and B, respectively. Examples of these products include Baxalta’s Advate and Pfizer’s Xyntha (both recombinant FVIII products), and Pfizer’s BeneFix and Biogen’s Alprolix (both recombinant FIX products). (Baxalta was spun off from Baxter International in July 2015, and then acquired by Shire in January 2016.)

To avoid joint damage and other complications, patients with severe hemophilia need regular infusions, lasting 30 minutes or more, of relatively short-acting and expensive recombinant clotting factors. The cost of these products per patient could total more than $300,000 in 2014.

In recent decades, clotting factor replacement therapy has reduced the morbidity and mortality of hemophilia. However, compared with individuals with normal coagulation, deaths still occur at higher rates due to bleeding episodes. Prophylactic therapy via regular intravenous infusions of factor two to three times per week is now the standard of care for children and increasingly for adults, especially for patients with severe hemophilia. With the expense of current therapies, and the need for frequent infusions, compliance is difficult. Moreover, convenient access to peripheral veins is often a problem. Many children require use of central venous access devices, with the risks of infection and thrombosis.

As a result, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have been attempting to develop longer-acting recombinant clotting factor products, with some success. Example of recently-developed products include Biogen/Swedish Orphan Biovitrum’s Alprolix (recombinant factor IX Fc fusion protein, approved by the FDA in March 2014 for treatment of hemophilia B) and Biogen/Swedish Orphan Biovitrum’s Eloctate (recombinant factor VIII Fc fusion protein, approved by the FDA in June 2014 for treatment of hemophilia A). Both of these products are fusion proteins between recombinant clotting factors and Fc immunoglobulin domains. The use of Fc domains is designed to prolong the half-life of the recombinant fusion proteins in the circulation. Other companies that have been active in developing longer-acting recombinant FIX and FVIIII products include Bayer and Novo Nordisk.

The new longer-acting recombinant clotting factors can reduce the frequency of infusion needed for control of a patient’s hemophilia. However, some patients, especially children under 12, may require higher doses or more frequent infusions than most adults.

Gene therapies for hemophilia under development

The ideal therapies for hemophilia A and/or B would be gene therapies. Gene therapies would potentially eliminate the need for lifelong, frequent infusions of clotting factors, with improved quality of life and reduced risk of death due to bleeding episodes.

As discussed in our recently published book-length report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization (published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute), hemophilia A and B have been extensive researched as candidates for gene therapy. This research has included development and use of animal models, development of coagulation assays that can be used in quantitating the results of treatment, and development of actual candidate gene therapies, especially in the case of hemophilia B.

Development of gene therapies for hemophilia B (the disease that afflicted Tsarevich Alexei and other European royals) enjoys the advantage of the relatively small size of the coding region of the gene for FIX. It is approximately 1.4 kB of cDNA (complementary DNA) coding sequence. This allows researchers to insert this coding element into many different gene transfer vectors, especially adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors. (AAV is the most commonly used vector in gene therapy today.) The small size of the FIX coding region also allows for the addition of transcriptional regulatory elements to modulate the expression of an FIX transgene into small vectors such as those based on AAV.

In contrast, FVIII cDNA is over 8kB in size. Thus, it is not as readily accommodated in small gene transfer vectors such as AAV.  Researchers and companies have been employing several strategies to overcome this difficulty. Although R&D efforts aimed at making gene therapy for hemophilia A possible are underway, commercial development of gene therapy for hemophilia B is far ahead of that for hemophilia A.

As discussed in our report, an important factor that favors the use of gene therapy in treatment of hemophilias is that there is a relatively low threshold for success. In a hemophilia patient, If long-term expression of 2-3% of wild-type (or normal) levels of a functional clotting factor (FIX for hemophilia B or FVIII for hemophilia A) could be achieved, then a substantial reduction in the clinical manifestations of the disease could be attained. Expression of over 30 percent of the wild-type level of the clotting factor could restore a patient to phenotypic normality, although higher levels may be required in the case of hemostatic challenge.

Preliminary results of uniQure’s clinical trial of its hemophilia B gene therapy, AMT-060

In our report, we discuss four programs for development of hemophilia B gene therapies that have reached the clinic. All are based on AAV vectors. One of these four therapies, AMT-060, is being developed by uniQure (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). uniQure has the distinction of having developed the first, and currently (as of January 2016) the only, gene therapy product that has received regulatory approval in a regulated market. This is Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec), a treatment for the ultra-rare genetic disease lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD). uniQure’s hemophilia B gene therapy candidate, AMT-060, is being developed in Europe in collaboration with Chiesi (Parma, Italy).

On January 7, 2016 uniQure announced preliminary results from the low-dose cohort of an ongoing Phase 1/2 clinical trial (clinical trial number NCT02396342) being conducted in adult hemophilia B patients treated with uniQure’s novel AAV5-FIX gene therapy, AMT-060. At the time of their enrollment in the trial, all five patients in the low-dose cohort had FIX levels of less than 1-2% of normal levels, and required chronic treatment with prophylactic recombinant FIX (rFIX) therapy.

The first two patients out of the five have completed 20 and 12 weeks of follow-up and had FIX expression levels of 5.5% and 4.5% of normal, respectively, as of the cutoff date of December 16th, 2015. The three other patients have been dosed, but had not achieved the full 12 weeks of follow-up at the cutoff date. However, as of January 6, 2016, four of the five patients, including the first two patients enrolled in the study, have been able to fully discontinue prophylactic rFIX. The first patient in the low-dose cohort experienced a mild, transient and asymptomatic elevation of liver transaminase levels in serum at 10 weeks after treatment; this was easily resolved by treatment with prednisolone. No elevated transaminase levels have been observed in the other four patients so far.

As outlined in our report, AMT-060 consists of an AAV5 vector carrying a gene cassette encoding a codon-optimized (i.e., using codons most frequently found in highly expressed eukaryotic genes) wild-type human FIX (hFIX), under the control of a liver-specific promoter. The gene cassette has been exclusively licensed by uniQure from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Memphis, Tenn.). It is the same gene cassette that has been successfully tested in published Phase 1 trials. AMT-060 is manufactured using uniQure’s proprietary insect cell based technology. The therapy is administered, without the use of immunosuppressants, through a peripheral vein in one treatment session for approximately 30 minutes. The study includes a low-dose and a high-dose cohort. So far, there have been no issues with pre-existing neutralizing antibodies against AAV5 or with development of inhibitory FIX antibodies.

This early data suggests that AMT-060 is well-tolerated, and is able to successfully transduce the liver, and thus to produce clinically meaningful levels of serum FIX.

uniQure and its collaborators are continuing the study. The investigators intend to present a more complete analysis of the data from the low-dose cohort at a scientific conference in the second quarter of 2016. uniQure also anticipates initiating enrollment of the high-dose cohort in the first quarter of 2016.

The hemophilia gene therapy field will be competitive

Among the clinical-stage hemophilia B programs covered in our report, Spark Therapeutics expects to report initial efficacy data in mid-2016 for its Phase 1/2 clinical trial of SPK-FIX, which it is developing in collaboration with Pfizer. As discussed in our report, only Baxalta has reported early clinical trials for its therapy, AskBio009/BAX335. These results were reported in July 2015. As in many early studies of hemophilia gene therapies, there were issues with neutralizing antibodies that led to decreased FIX expression. Baxalta continues to work to address the observed immune responses, while maintaining target levels of FIX expression. As uniQure continues with its clinical trial of AMT-060 and treats more patients with higher doses, it remains to be seen to what extent immune reactions might affect results with its hemophilia B gene therapy.

The other hemophilia B program discussed in our report is at Dimension Therapeutics. At the time of our report’s publication, Dimension’s first clinical trial was to commence in the second half of 2015. As reported by Dimension, the Phase 1/2 study for its AAVrh10-FIX product DTX101 was actually initiated on January 7, 2016.

Other companies that are entering the hemophilia B or A gene therapy field include Biogen, Sangamo in collaboration with Shire, and Biomarin. Biomarin’s program is in hemophilia A, and all the companies mentioned in this article and in our report that have hemophilia B programs also are developing hemophilia A gene therapies. At least some commentators believe that “hemophilia could prove to be the most competitive gene therapy race to date.”


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Can adoptive cellular immunotherapy successfully treat metastatic gastrointestinal cancers?


Dr. Steven Rosenberg

Dr. Steven Rosenberg

On September 6, 2014, we published an article on this blog announcing the publication of our book-length report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors, Cancer Vaccines, and Adoptive T-cell Therapies, by Cambridge Healthtech Institute (CHI).

In that article, we cited the example of the case of a woman with metastatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile-duct cancer), which typically kills the patient in a matter of months. The patient, Melinda Bachini, was treated via adoptive immunotherapy with autologous tumor-infiltrating T cells (TILs) resulting in survival over a period of several years, with a good quality of life.

Our report includes a full discussion of that case, as of the date of the May 2014 publication of a report in Science by Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D. and his colleagues at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Ms. Bachini’s story was also covered in a May 2014 New York Times article.

Now comes the publication, in Science on December 2015, of an update from the Rosenberg group on their clinical studies of TIL-based immunotherapy of metastatic gastrointestinal cancers. This article discusses the results of TIL treatment of ten patients with a variety of gastrointestinal cancers, including cancers of the bile duct, the colon or rectum, the esophagus, and the pancreas. The case of Ms. Bachini (“patient number 3737”) was included.

Ms. Bachini, a paramedic and a married mother of six children, and a volunteer with the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, was 41 years old when first diagnosed with cancer. She remains alive today—a five-year survivor—at age 46.

The Foundation produced a video, dated March 13, 2015, in which Ms. Bachini gives her “patient perspective”. This video includes her story “from the beginning”—from diagnosis through surgery and chemotherapy, and continuing with adoptive immunotherapy at the NCI under Dr. Rosenberg. Although her tumors continue to shrink and she remains alive, she still is considered to have “Stage 4” (metastatic) cancer. Ms. Bachini is a remarkable woman.

The Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation has also produced an on-demand webinar (dated October 21, 2014) on the adoptive cellular therapy trial in patients with various types of metastatic gastrointestinal cancers, led by Drs. Eric Tran and Steven Rosenberg. Ms. Bachini is also a presenter on that webinar. The December 2015 Science article is an updated version of the results of this trial.

The trial, a Phase 2 clinical study (NCT01174121) remains ongoing, and is recruiting new patients.

The particular focus of Dr. Tran’s and Dr. Rosenberg’s study in TIL treatment of gastrointestinal cancers is whether TILs derived from these tumors include T-cell subpopulations that target specific somatic mutations expressed by the cancers, and whether these subpopulations might be harnessed to successfully treat patients with these cancers. Of the ten patients who were the focus of the December 2015 publication, only Ms. Bachini had a successful treatment. In the case of Ms. Bachini, she received a second infusion of TILs that were enriched for CD4+ T cells that targeted a unique mutation in a protein known as ERBB2IP. It was this second treatment that resulted in the successful knockdown of her tumors, which continues to this day.

Despite the lack of similar successes in the treatment of the other nine patients, the researchers found that TILs from eight of these patients contained CD4+ and/or CD8+ T cells that recognized one to three somatic mutations in the patient’s own tumors. Notably, CD8+ TILs isolated from a colon cancer tumor of one patient (patient number 3995) recognized a mutation in KRAS known as KRAS G12D. This mutation results in an amino acid substitution at position 12 in KRAS, from glycine (G) to aspartic acid (D). KRAS G12D is a driver mutation that is involved in causation of many human cancers.

Although two other patients (numbers 4032 and 4069, with colon and pancreatic cancer, respectively) had tumors that expressed KRAS G12D, the researchers did not detect TILs that recognized the KRAS mutation in these patients. The researchers concluded that KRAS G12D was not immunogenic in these patients. The TILs from patient 3995 were CD8+ T cells that recognized KRAS G12D in the context of the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) allele HLA-C*08:02. [As with all T cells, TILs express T-cell receptors (TCRs) that recognize a specific antigenic peptide bound to a particular major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule—this is referred to as “MHC restriction”.] The two patients for whom KRAS G12D was not immunogenic did not express the HLA-C*08:02 allele.

The results seen with KRAS G12D-expressing tumor suggest the possibility of constructing genetically-engineered CD8+ T cells that express a TCR that is reactive with the KRAS mutation in the context of the HLA-C*08:02 allele. The KRAS G12D driver mutation is expressed in about 45% of pancreatic adenocarcinomas, 13% of colorectal cancers, and at lower frequencies in other cancers, and the HLA-C*08:02 allele is expressed by approximately 8% and 11% of white and black people, respectively, in the U.S. Thus, in the U.S. alone, thousands of patients per year with metastatic gastrointestinal cancers would potentially be eligible for immunotherapy with this KRASG12D-reactive T cell.

Although only Ms. Bachini (“patient number 3737”) was a long-term survivor, the researchers were able to treat three other patients with enriched populations of TILs targeting predominantly one mutated tumor antigen. Patient 4069 experienced a transient regression of multiple lung metastases of his pancreatic adenocarcinoma, but patients 4007 and 4032 had no objective response. Whereas 23% of circulating T cells at one month after treatment were adoptively transferred mutation-specific TILs in the case of Ms. Bachini, the other three patients treated with enriched populations of mutation-specific TILs showed no or minimal persistence. The researchers concluded that they will need to develop strategies designed to enhance the potency and persistence of adoptively transferred mutation-specific TILs. Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that nearly all patients with advanced gastrointestinal cancers harbor tumor mutation-specific TILs. This finding may serve as the basis for developing personalized adoptive cellular therapies and/or vaccines that can effectively target common epithelial cancers.


Dr. Rosenberg pioneered the study and development of adoptive cellular immunotherapy, beginning in the 1980s. Most studies with TIL-based adoptive immunotherapy have been in advanced melanoma. Adoptive cellular immunotherapy is the most effective approach to inducing complete durable regressions in patients with metastatic melanoma.

As we discussed in our cancer immunotherapy report, melanoma tumors have many more somatic mutations (about 200 nonsynonymous mutations per tumor) than most types of cancer. This appears to be due to the role of a potent immunogen—ultraviolet light—in the pathogenesis of melanoma. The large number of somatic mutations in melanomas results in the infiltration of these tumors by TILs that target the mutations. As discussed in our report, Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues cultured TIL cell lines that addressed specific immunodominant mutations in patients’ melanomas. Treatment with these cell lines in several cases resulted in durable complete remissions of the patients’ cancers.

Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues used the same strategy employed in identification of TIL cell lines that targeted specific mutations in melanomas to carry out the study in gastrointestinal cancers, as discussed in our report. However, the small number of somatic mutations and of endogenous TILs in gastrointestinal cancers and in most other epithelial cancers has made studies in these cancers more difficult than studies in melanoma.

in addition, the susceptibility of melanoma to treatment with checkpoint inhibitors such as the PD-1 blockers pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda) and nivolumab (Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo) correlates with the large number of somatic mutations in this type of cancer. As we discussed in our December 15, 2014 article on this blog, immune checkpoint inhibitors work by reactivating endogenous tumor-infiltrating T cells (TILs). In the case of melanoma, these endogenous TILs target the numerous somatic mutations found in these cancers, and—as suggested by Dr. Rosenberg’s studies with cultured TIL cell lines—those endogenous TILs that target immunodominant mutations can induce durable compete remissions. As discussed in our December 15, 2014 blog article, the three major types of immuno-oncology treatments—immune checkpoint inhibitors, cancer vaccines, and adoptive T-cell therapies, work via related mechanisms.

In 2015, researchers showed that other types of cancers that have numerous somatic mutations are especially susceptible to checkpoint inhibitor treatment. These include, for example, non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLCs) that have mutational signatures that indicate that the cancers were caused by smoking, and cancers that have mutations in genes involved in DNA repair. (Mutations in genes involved in DNA repair pathways result in the generation of numerous additional mutations.)

Moreover, as discussed in our December 15, 2014 blog article, cancer immunotherapy researchers have been expanding the types of tumors that can be treated with checkpoint inhibitors. Genentech/Roche’s PD-L1 inhibitor that was discussed in that article, MPDL3280A, is now called atezolizumab. The clinical trials of atezolizumab discussed in that article and in our report have continued to progress. In a pivotal Phase 2 study in locally advanced or metastatic urothelial bladder cancer (UBC), atezolizumab shrank tumors in 27 percent of people whose disease had medium and high levels of PD-L1 expression and had worsened after initial treatment with platinum chemotherapy. These responses were found to be durable. According to Genentech, these results may represent the first major treatment advance in advanced UBC in nearly 30 years. Atezolizumab also gave positive results in Phase 2 clinical trials in patients with NSCLC that expresses medium to high levels of PD-L1.

Meanwhile, NewLink Genetics (Ames, IA) has entered Phase 3 clinical trials in pancreatic cancer with its HyperAcute cellular immunotherapy vaccine therapy. A Phase 2 trial of the company’s HyperAcute cellular immunotherapy algenpantucel-L in combination with chemotherapy and chemoradiotherapy in resected pancreatic cancer (clinical trial number NCT00569387) appears to be promising.

Dr. Rosenberg’s studies of TIL therapies of gastrointestinal cancers represent another approach to moving immuno-oncology treatments beyond melanoma, based on mutation-specific targeting. The types of cancers that form the focus of these studies—gastrointestinal epithelial cancers—have proven difficult to treat. Moreover, several of them are among the most common of cancers. The researchers and patients involved in these and other immuno-oncology studies are heroes, and oncologists appear to be making measured progress against cancers that have been until recently considered untreatable.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Spark Therapeutics’ retinal disease gene therapy SPK-RPE65 may reach the U.S. market in 2017


Spark! Source:

Spark! Source:

As we discussed in our November 16, 2015 article on this blog, Spark Therapeutics (Philadelphia, PA) recently announced positive top-line results from the Phase 3 pivotal trial of SPK-RPE65, a gene therapy for treatment of inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) caused by mutations in the gene for RPE65.  At a later scientific meeting, the company presented data that showed that SPK-RPE65 gave durable improvements in vision over a three-year period.

SPK-RPE65 is the most advanced gene therapy in development for retinal disease of any company, as discussed in our November 2015 book-length gene therapy report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute. Our report includes detailed discussions of SPK-RPE65, Spark Therapeutics, and other companies developing gene therapies for ophthalmologic diseases.

Now comes a recent online article in “Seeking Alpha” by ONeil Trader, which discusses Spark’s commercialization plans for SPK-RPE65, based on the positive Phase 3 results. Spark is planning to file a Biologics License Application (BLA) for SPK-RPE65 in 2016, as also stated on the company’s website. According to the “Seeking Alpha” article, SPK-RPE65 should reach the U.S. market in 2017, and should be the first FDA-approved gene therapy product in the United States.

The “Seeking Alpha” article also gives a projected range of peak sales for SPK-RPE65: from $350 million to $900 million. The article also reminds investors (the primary audience of “Seeking Alpha”) that Spark has a rich pipeline beyond SPK-RPE65. We have discussed the two clinical stage products mentioned by “Seeking Alpha”—SPK-CHM for the IRD choroideremia and SPK-FIX for hemophilia B (partnered with Pfizer) in our report. We have also discussed Spark’s first neurodegenerative disease gene therapy, SPK-TPP1 for Batten disease, in the December 7, 2015 article on this blog.

Might other gene therapies reach the U.S. market in 2017?

The “Seeking Alpha” article predicts that SPK-RPE65 will be the first gene therapy to reach the US. market, in 2017. However, there are several other gene therapies discussed in our report that might also reach the U.S. market by 2017, perhaps beating SPK-RPE65 for the honor of being first-to-U.S.-market.

Despite its already being approved in Europe, uniQure’s Glybera, the “first commercially available gene therapy”, will not be the first to reach the U.S. market. That is because uniQure has dropped plans to seek FDA approval for Glybera.

As discussed in our gene therapy report, the products most likely to reach the U.S. market at the same time or before SPK-RPE65 are all CD19-targeting CAR T-cell therapies for treatment of various B-cell leukemias and lymphomas. These products include Novartis/Penn’s CTL019, Juno’s JCAR015, and Kite’s KTE-C19. At least as a “stretch goal”, CTL019 might even reach the U.S. market for treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2016. In addition to these products, our report includes discussions of other gene therapies that might reach the U.S. and/or European market before 2020, and achieve revenues equal to or greater than those projected for SPK-RPE65.

Importantly, none of these other products will compete with SPK-RPE65, except for the honor of being “the first gene therapy to reach the U.S. market”. And the prospect of several gene therapy products reaching the U.S. and/or European market before 2020 suggests that gene therapy is moving beyond the “premature technology” stage, and into commercial success.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

“Our Promise to Nicholas”, Batten disease, and gene therapy


Wayland MA Source:

Wayland MA Source:

Russell’s Garden Center, on Route 20, a family-owned business established in 1876, is a unique Wayland MA institution. When you shop at Russell’s and approach the check-out counter with your plants, flowers, or other purchases, you will see a donation box for a rare-disease charity called “Our Promise to Nicholas Foundation”.

This charity is named for Nicholas R. Dainiak, a Bedford MA boy who died on his 11th birthday in 2014, after “a courageous six year battle with Batten’s disease”. The primary mission of the foundation is to raise funds and create partnerships aimed at promoting awareness, providing education, and developing translational research in Batten disease.

One of the events that the Foundation sponsors in order to raise funds and awareness is the John Tanner Memorial 5-K Run and Walk, which this year took place on October 4, 2015 in Wayland. This event memorializes both Nicholas and John Tanner. John Tanner was a competitive runner who devoted all of his races over 5 years to raising awareness about Nicholas and Batten disease. He was also a long-time employee of Russell’s Garden Center—hence the Russell’s and Wayland connection to the Foundation. John Tanner died unexpectedly while running the NYC half marathon in the spring of 2013.

Batten disease

Batten disease is a very rare, fatal, autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disorder that usually begins in childhood. Juvenile Batten disease is one of a group of disorders known as neuronal ceroid lipofuscinoses (NCLs). NCLs may be caused by one of over 400 different mutations. They affect the nervous system with vision loss, seizures, movement disorders, slow learning, altered thought processes, and cognitive decline.

Although Batten disease was originally used to describe only the juvenile form of NCL the term “Batten disease” is now widely used to refer to all forms of NCL, including adult-onset disease. Juvenile NCL, the most prevalent form of Batten disease, has been linked to mutations in the CLN3 gene. Late infantile NCL has been linked to mutations in NCL2.

Batten disease is a type of lysosomal storage disease. The CLN3 gene codes for a protein called battenin, which is found principally in lysosomes and in endosomes. The protein’s function is currently unknown. The CLN2 gene codes for a lysosomal enzyme called tripeptidyl peptidase 1 (TPP1), which is an acid protease.

Mutations in CLN2, CLN3, and other Batten disease genes result in the accumulation of lipofuscins in the tissues of the body. Lipofuscins are lipoproteins that form autofluorescent ceroid (i.e., waxy) deposits throughout the body of Batten disease patients.  Lipopfuscin deposits can sometimes be detected visually in the back of the eye. As the disease progresses, the deposits in the retina appear more pronounced, and ophthalmologists see circular bands of different shades of pink and orange in the patient’s optic nerve and retina. Ceroid lipofuscins are a hallmark of Batten disease, and appear to cause disease symptoms.

Juvenile Batten disease has an estimated incidence between 0.5 – 8 per 100,000 live births, with an average of 1.2. Despite its rarity, juvenile Batten disease appears to be the most common form of pediatric neurodegenerative disease. In addition to Batten disease patients, there are approximately 440,000 asymptomatic people in the United States who are carriers of juvenile Batten disease who have one copy of a mutated version of the CLN3 gene.

As with other rare diseases, a typical Batten disease patient may visit 8 physicians and receives 2 to 3 misdiagnoses before being correctly diagnosed. This may take many years. In the case of Nicholas, he had several misdiagnoses and mis-treatments over the early course of his disease, from age 4 to age 5. It was a ophthalmologist who finally correctly diagnosed Nicholas with Batten disease.

Relationship between Batten disease and more common neurodegenerative diseases

The written material next to the donation box for “Our Promise to Nicholas” in Russell’s Garden Center claims that study of Batten disease may lead to a greater understanding of such neurodegenerative diseases of aging as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Some of the symptoms and consequences of Batten disease resemble those of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Nevertheless, Batten disease is classified as a lysosomal storage disease, while Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are thought to be caused via other mechanisms.

However, some researchers see common mechanisms in the pathobiology of neurodegenerative lysosomal storage diseases such as Batten and of other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Specifically, these include impairment of autophagy and increase in cytoplasmic protein aggregation. For example, some researchers have found relationships between mutations in the Alzheimer’s disease-related protein presenilin 1 and lysosomal dysfunction.

Since clinical trials of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease have so far been unsuccessful, study of alternative mechanisms for the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s may be useful in developing new ways of addressing drug discovery for this devastating and all-too-common disease.

Discovery and development of gene therapies for Batten disease

The “Our Promise to Nicholas” website has a page entitled “Where your donations go”. According to that Web page, Nicholas’ disease was caused by a splice mutation in CLN2, which blocked production of TPP1. This is the most common mutation in children with the late infantile subtype of Batten Disease.

The same Web page discusses a gene therapy program led by Beverly Davidson, Ph.D. (then at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA), which had been supported by Our Promise To Nicholas Foundation. As of April 2014, Dr. Davidson joined the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). At that time, Dr. Davidson became the director of CHOP’s Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics. She has also continued her research on gene therapy for neurodegenerative diseases, including Batten disease, other neurologic lysosomal storage disorders, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and others.

While at Iowa, and continuing at CHOP, Dr. Davidson and her colleagues were investigating the use of adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors carrying a functional TPP1 gene in treatment of late infantile Batten disease in animal models.

On November 11, 2015, Spark Therapeutics (Philadelphia, PA) announced that its first gene therapy program targeting a central nervous system (CNS) disease will target late infantile Batten disease. In that press release, it also announced that a report published in the 11 November issue of Science Translational Medicine provides preclinical proof of principle for Spark’s gene therapy, known as SPK-TPP1. The preclinical study, in a naturally occurring dog model, was led by Dr. Davidson at CHOP.

The study demonstrated the potential of a one-time administration of SPK-TPP1 to delay onset and progression of Batten disease in the dog model. SPK-TPP1 consists of Spark’s AAV2 vector carrying a functional TPP1 gene. The preclinical study showed that one-time administration of SPK-TPP1 to the ependymal cells of the brain ventricular system produced steady expression of the enzyme in the cerebrospinal fluid, and throughout the CNS. It also resulted in delayed onset of clinical symptoms and disease progression, protection from cognitive decline and extension of lifespan, as compared to untreated controls.

Based on these results, Spark plans to initiate Investigational New Drug Application (IND)-enabling studies in 2015.

Our November 2015 book-length report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization (published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute), contains a discussion of gene therapy vectors, including AAV. It also highlights Spark Therapeutics as a leader in AAV-based gene therapy and in gene-therapy treatments for retinal diseases. Spark’s technology platform had been developed over a 20-year period at CHOP.

As also discussed in our November 16, 2015 article on this blog, Spark has recently completed a Phase 3 pivotal trial of SPK-RPE65, a gene therapy for treatment of inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) caused by mutations in the gene for RPE65. SPK-TPP1 uses the same AAV2 vector as SPK-RPE65, and will utilize the same manufacturing processes. AAV2 has a neural tropism. Since the retina is an extension of the brain, researchers can utilize AAV2 vectors to target both tissues.


On the Web page “Where your donations go”, Dr. Davidson says that funding from “family foundations such as Our Promise to Nicholas Foundation” has provided much needed support. Their donations have allowed cutting-edge research to be conducted in a timely manner, rather than months or years after researchers develop the ideas for these studies. Moreover, interacting with Batten disease families is especially motivating, and the advisory role of scientists who review grant proposals for family foundations is valuable as well.

Our Promise to Nicholas is far from the only Batten disease “family foundation”. Other families of patients with juvenile and adult-onset Batten disease have formed foundations to fund research and awareness. For example, there are Nathan’s Battle Foundation and the Batten Disease Support and Research Association (BDSRA). Our Promise to Nicholas participated in the 2015 BDSRA Annual Conference, and worked together with other Batten disease family foundations to provide nursing care and childcare for the event. Thus when Dr. Davidson refers to “family foundations”, she is referring to several such organizations.

Dr. Davidson also pointed out that grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has dramatically decreased in recent years due to Federal budget constraints. This has especially affected research on rare diseases such as Batten disease. Dr. Davidson believes that “family foundation support is being increasingly relied upon to fill a growing void in NIH funding”.

Funding of Dr. Davidson’s research by Our Promise to Nicholas Foundation and other family foundations has resulted in a gene therapy R&D program that has been adopted by one of the world’s leading gene therapy companies, Spark Therapeutics. Spark (in collaboration with Dr. Davidson’s group at CHOP) is taking its Batten disease program into the clinic, and intends to commercialize SPK-TPP1. Spark is also using its Batten disease program as the basis for its larger neurodegenerative disease program. Thus Our Promise to Nicholas Foundation has much to be proud of.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Gene Therapy Report Published By CHI Insight Pharma Reports


Adeno-associated virus, a common gene therapy vector. Source:

Adeno-associated virus, a common gene therapy vector. Source:

On November 6, 2015, Cambridge Healthtech Institute (CHI) announced the publication of a new book-length report, Gene Therapy: Moving Toward Commercialization, by Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D.

As demonstrated by several late-breaking news items that appeared as our report was in the process of publication, gene therapy is a “hot”, fast-moving field. For example:

On October 5, 2015, Spark Therapeutics (Philadelphia, PA) announced positive top-line results from the Phase 3 pivotal trial of SPK-RPE65, a gene therapy for treatment of inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) caused by mutations in the gene for RPE65. This trial met its primary endpoint, and there were no serious adverse events related to treatment with the therapy. In results presented at a scientific meeting later in October, SPK-RPE65 was found to give durable improvements in vision over a three-year period.

SPK-RPE65 is not only Spark’s most advanced gene therapy in development, but is the most advanced gene therapy for retinal disease of any company. It is covered in our report.

bluebird’s LentiGlobin BB305—including the company’s strategy for commercializing this product—is also discussed in our report. In bluebird’s November 5, 2015 presentation at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting, it was revealed that in Phase 1/2 clinical trials, LentiGlobin BB305 rendered the few sickle-cell disease patients in the trials transfusion-free and hospitalization-free for at least six months. Among patients with severe beta-thalassemia, all except for those with the β0/β0 genotype were rendered transfusion-free for at least 90 days, with a median of 287 days transfusion-free. Two of the β0/β0 patients (who made no hemoglobin at baseline) received a single transfusion post-discharge, and the third β0/β0 patient remains transfusion-dependent.

The stock market had focused on the negative results with the β0/β0 patients, and thus bluebird stock lost over 20% of its value after the ASH abstracts were released. However, the β0/β0 patients represent only one-third of the beta-thalassemia market, and sickle-cell disease is a larger market than beta-thalassemia. Thus, provided further clinical trials are positive, LentiGlobin BB305 can still be a successful product. bluebird is increasing the number of patients who will be enrolled in the trial from eight to 20, so more data should be forthcoming in 2016.

In corporate gene therapy news, Spark Therapeutics recently opened a new satellite office in the Boston area, joining Boston-area gene therapy companies bluebird bio, Dimension Therapeutics, and Voyager Therapeutics. All are discussed in our report. Spark and bluebird are public companies, and Dimension and Voyager recently went public. In addition, uniQure, the company that developed the first approved gene therapy product, opened a Lexington MA office and manufacturing facility in 2013. Boston has thus become Gene Therapy Central. As discussed in our report, Boston is also the most important center for companies that focus on gene editing, based on CRISPR/Cas9 technology.

These and other recent news articles and scientific publications attest to the progress of gene therapy, which only a few years ago was considered to be a “premature technology”.

Our gene therapy report looks at how researchers have been working to overcome critical barriers to development of safe and efficacious gene therapy, from 1990 to 2015. It then focuses on clinical-stage gene therapy programs that are aimed at commercialization, and the companies that are carrying out these programs. A major theme of the report is whether gene therapy can attain near-term commercial success, and what hurdles still need to be overcome.

Topics covered in the report:

  • Development of improved vectors (integrating and non-integrating vectors)
  • Gene therapy for ophthalmological diseases
  • Gene therapy for hemophilias and other rare diseases
  • Gene therapy for more common diseases (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, and heart failure)
  • Companies whose central technology platform involves ex vivo gene therapy
  • Gene editing technology
  • Outlook for gene therapy
  • Outlook for eight gene therapy products expected to reach the market before 2020

The report also includes:

  • An exclusive interview with Sam Wadsworth, Ph.D., the Chief Scientific Officer of Dimension Therapeutics and former Head of Gene Therapy R&D at Genzyme
  • The results and an analysis of a survey of individuals working in gene therapy, conducted by Insight Pharma Reports in conjunction with this report.
  • Companies profiled: uniQure, Spark Therapeutics, GenSight, Dimension Therapeutics, Voyager Therapeutics, Oxford BioMedica, bluebird, Juno Therapeutics, Kite Pharma, Editas, and others.

Our report is designed to enable you to understand current and future developments in gene therapy. It is also designed to inform the decisions of leaders in companies and in academic groups that are working in gene therapy R&D and in development of gene therapy enabling technologies.

For more information on the report, or to order it, see the CHI Insight Pharma Reports website.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Vertex cystic fibrosis therapeutics update

CFTR protein: A. normal B. gating mutant. Source: Lbudd14

CFTR protein: A. normal B. gating mutant.
Source: Lbudd14

As we said in our September 10, 2014 article, we intended to post updates on companies that we had been following on our blog, and that have achieved significant progress in recent months. So far, we have covered Agios and Zafgen. Both of these companies were featured in Boston-area meetings in October—Zafgen in Xconomy Xchange: Boston’s Life Science Disruptors on October 8, and Agios in the New Approaches to Cancer Drug Discovery symposium at Harvard Medical School on October 14.

Now we turn to the small-molecule cystic fibrosis (CF) therapeutics program at Vertex Pharmaceuticals (Boston, MA).

We covered Vertex’ CF program in our articles of January 24, 2013 and February 15, 2013. As a result of the publication of these articles, I was interviewed for and quoted in an article in the March 11, 2013 issue of Elsevier Business Intelligence’s The Pink Sheet entitled “Cystic Fibrosis Market Snapshot: Disease-Modifying Drugs Elusive 24 Years After Discovery Of Root Cause”. (A subscription is required to view the full text of this article.)

To summarize our discussions of CF in these earlier articles, CF causes a suite of symptoms that affect the skin, the lungs and sinuses, and the digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems. The most important results of CF is that patients accumulate thick, sticky mucus in the lungs. This results in clogging of the airways with mucus. This leads to inflammation and bacterial infections. Lung transplantation is often necessary as the disease worsens. With proper management, patients can live into their late 30s or 40s.

The gene that is affected in cystic fibrosis encodes the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR).  CFTR is an ion channel that regulates the movement of chloride and sodium ions across epithelial membranes, including the epithelia of lung alveoli. CF is an autosomal recessive disease, which is most common in Caucasians. The most common mutation that causes CF, ΔF508, is a deletion of three nucleotides that causes the loss of the amino acid phenylalanine at position 508 of the CFTR protein. The ΔF508 mutation accounts for approximately two-thirds of CF cases worldwide and 90% of cases in the United States. However, there are over 1500 other mutations that can cause CF.

Ion channels constitute an important class of drug targets, which are targeted by numerous currently marketed drugs. These compounds were developed empirically by traditional pharmacology before knowing anything about the molecular nature of their targets. However, discovery of novel ion channel modulators via modern molecular methods has proven to be challenging.

The ΔF508 mutation results in defective cellular processing, and the mutant CTFR protein is retained in the endoplasmic reticulum. Some other mutations in CTFR (which affect a small percentage of CF patients) result in mutant proteins that reach the cell membrane, but are ineffective in chloride-channel function.

After a long discovery and development program (which we outlined in our February 15, 2013 article), Vertex identified two types of candidate small-molecule CF therapeutics:

  • CFTR potentiators, which potentiate the chloride channel activity of mutant CFTR molecules at the cell surface;
  • CFTR correctors, which partially correct the folding and/or trafficking defect of such mutant CFTRs as ΔF508, thus enabling a portion of these mutant proteins to exit from the endoplasmic reticulum and to deposit in the cell membrane.

Vertex’ CTFR potentiator ivacaftor (Kalydeco, formerly known as VX-770) was approved by the FDA in January 2012, and approved in Europe in July 2012. At that time, ivacaftor was only indicated for treatment of CF patients age 6 and over carrying the CFTR G551D mutation (Gly551Asp). Although the G551D mutation only affects approximately 4% of CF patients, it is the most common CFTR gating mutation (i.e., a mutation that affects transport of sodium and chloride ions across epithelial membranes).

New indications for ivacaftor (Kalydeco)

On July 31, 2014, Vertex announced that the European Commission had approved ivacaftor for treatment of CF patients age 6 and over who have one of eight non-G551D gating mutations in the CFTR gene. The eight additional gating mutations included in the new approval affect approximately 250 people ages 6 and older in the European Union.

The approval was based on data from a Phase 3 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 39 people with CF ages 6 and older who have a non-G551D gating mutation.

The European approval followed the February 21, 2014 announcement that the FDA had approved ivacaftor for treatment of CF patients 6 and older who have one of the same additional eight mutations in the CFTR gene. In the U.S., approximately 150 people ages 6 and older have one of the additional eight mutations.

On October 21, 2014, the FDA’s Pulmonary Allergy Drugs Advisory Committee (PADAC) voted 13-2 to recommend approval of ivacaftor in CF patients age 6 and older who have the R117H mutation in the CTFR gene. This new indication is now under review by the FDA.

Thus Vertex has been pursuing a strategy of testing and seeking approval of ivacaftor for treatment of CF patients with gating mutations in the CTFR gene other than the G551D mutation, in a systematic, step-by-step fashion. As a result of this strategy, ivacaftor is currently approved to treat over 2,600 people ages 6 and older in North America, Europe and Australia.

Vertex’ development of the CFTR correctors lumacaftor (VX-809) and VX-661

Meanwhile, Vertex has also been pursuing approval for its CFTR correctors lumacaftor (VX-809) and VX-661. We have discussed these agents in our February 15, 2013 blog article.

As we discussed in that article, as of February 2013 Vertex had completed Phase 2 studies of a combination of ivacaftor and lumacaftor in CF patients who were homozygous for the CFTR ΔF508 mutation. They then planned pivotal phase 3 trials of the combination therapy in this patient population. The rationale for the combination treatment was that VX-809 potentates the deposition of CFTR ΔF508 in the cell membrane, and invacaftor potentiates the function of cell-surface CFTR ΔF508.

As of February 2013, Vertex was also conducting Phase 2 trials of another CTFR corrector, VX-661, alone and in combination with ivacaftor in CF patients homozygous for CFTR ΔF508.

On June 24, 2014, Vertex announced that results from two Phase 3 studies of lumacaftor in combination with ivacaftor showed statistically significant improvements in lung function in people ages 12 and older with cystic fibrosis (CF) who were homozygous for CFTR ΔF508. All four 24-week combination treatment arms in the studies, known as TRAFFIC and TRANSPORT, met their primary endpoint of mean absolute improvement in lung function from baseline compared to placebo at the end of treatment. The combination treatments were also generally well tolerated.

Data from a pre-specified pooled analysis also showed improvements in multiple key secondary endpoints, including lowering pulmonary exacerbations.

On October 9, 2014, Vertex announced updates of the results of the TRAFFIC and TRANSPORT studies, in conjunction with the company’ presentations at the 28th Annual North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference (NACFC). Patients who completed 24 weeks of treatment in TRAFFIC or TRANSPORT were eligible to enter a Phase 3 rollover study to receive a combination regimen of lumacaftor and ivacaftor. The first interim data from the rollover study (presented at NACFC) showed that the improvements in lung function observed in the 24-week TRAFFIC and TRANSPORT studies were sustained through 48 weeks of treatment with the combination treatment. At the time of the interim analysis, safety and tolerability results were also consistent with those observed in the initial Phase 3 TRAFFIC and TRANSPORT studies.

In the October 9, 2014 press release, Vertex also announced the submission of an NDA in the U.S. and an MAA in Europe for the approval of ivacaftor in children with CF ages 2 to 5 with one of the same 9 CTFR gene mutations for which the drug is approved in patients 6 or older. These line extension submissions are based on further Phase 3 studies, which were also presented at the NACFC.

On November 5, 2014, the company announced that it had submitted an NDA to the FDA and an MAA to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for a fully co-formulated combination of lumacaftor and ivacaftor for CF patients age 12 and older who are homozygous for CFTR ΔF508. There are approximately 22,000 people with CF ages 12 and older who are homozygous for CFTR ΔF508 in North America, Europe and Australia. This includes approximately 8,500 people in the United States and 12,000 people in Europe. These new submissions are based on data from TRAFFIC and TRANSPORT, and on the first interim data from the subsequent rollover study.

Meanwhile, as also announced on October 9, 2014, clinical studies of VX-661 are continuing. Vertex presented data from Phase 2 studies of VX-661 in combination with ivacaftor at the 2014 NACFC. In the October 9 press release, Vertex announced that it plans to initiate a pivotal Phase 3 development program for VX-661 in combination with ivacaftor in CF patients who have one or two copies of the CFTR ΔF508 mutation, including patients with a second CFTR mutation that causes a defect in the gating of the CFTR protein. The initiation of this study is pending regulatory discussions and data from a fully enrolled 12-week Phase 2b study of VX-661 in combination with ivacaftor in patients who are homozygous for CFTR ΔF508.

The high cost of Kalydeco causes controversy

Kalydeco (ivacaftor) costs nearly $300,000 a year. These costs are usually borne by insurers and governments, and Vertex has pledged to provide the drug free to any U.S. patient who is uninsured or whose insurance won’t cover it.

However, the high cost of this drug—and the anticipated higher cost of combination therapies for treatment of CF—has generated controversy in some circles. This issue has been discussed, for example, in 2013 articles in the M.I.T. Technology Review and in MedPage Today. (MedPage Today is a peer-reviewed online medical news service for clinicians, which provides breaking medical news, professional medical analysis and continuing medical education (CME) credits to its physician readers.)

According to the Technology Review article, by Barry Werth, doctors and patients enthusiastically welcomed Kalydeco because it offers life-saving health benefits and there is no other treatment. Insurers and governments readily paid the cost. However, commentators quoted in the MedPage Today article said that the price of Kalydeco is exorbitant, and the increasing numbers of high-priced life-saving drugs to treat rare diseases (although nor usually borne directly by patients themselves) is unsustainable. Vertex—as quoted in the MedPage Today article—said that the price of Kalydeco reflects its high degree of efficacy, the time and cost [and risk] it took to develop the drug, and the company’s commitment to reinvest in continued development of newer drugs to help other CF patients.

The discussions of the high cost of Kalydeco echoes the discussions of the cost of novel drugs for life-threatening cancers, as mentioned in our October 2, 2014 article, “Late-breaking cancer immunotherapy news”, on this blog.

With respect to the development of Kalydeco and other small-molecule CF drugs, the publicly-funded—and successful—research to determine the molecular cause of CF was of little help in enabling researchers to develop disease-modifying drugs. (See our January 24, 2013 blog article, “Determining the molecular cause of a disease does not necessarily enable researchers to develop disease-modifying drugs”.) As outlined in our February 15, 2013 blog article, Vertex’ own drug discovery and development program (partially funded by the nonprofit Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which now receives royalties on sales of Kalydeco) was long (beginning in 1998), expensive, risky, and involved considerable ingenuity.

Given the high barrier between the knowledge of the molecular biology of CF and its use in discovering and developing safe and efficacious small-molecule drugs, the development of such agents as ivacaftor, lumacaftor, and VX-661 is almost miraculous. Vertex’ arguments that justify the high cost of the drug thus have considerable merit. However, discussions in the medical community and beyond on how the costs of novel life-saving drugs for rare diseases and cancer may be sustained will and should continue.


The goal of Vertex’ CF program as a whole is the development, approval and marketing of multiple combinations of small-molecule therapeutics that will have disease-modifying efficacy in the great majority of CF patients. Especially with the recent progress with clinical studies of the ivacaftor/lumacaftor combination in patients with CFTR ΔF508 mutations, and with line extensions of ivacaftor, Vertex appears to be well on its way to accomplishing this, pending regulatory approvals.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or an initial one-to-one consultation on an issue that is key to your company’s success, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Obesity therapeutics update

Obesity, 12th century Japan.

Obesity, 12th century Japan.

The Biopharmconsortium Blog has over the years included numerous articles about obesity, and the attempts of researchers and companies to develop treatments for this disease.

Obesity, which has historically been considered the result of “lack of willpower” or other behavioral issues, was recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association in June 2013. This followed many years of genetic, molecular biology, and physiological studies that revealed the pathobiological basis of obesity. Nevertheless, many people—including many doctors, patients, and nutritionists—persist in the believing the older view of obesity. This continues to fuel an extremely lucrative diet industry, even thought most—if not all—attempts at dieting eventually fail.

However, researchers and companies have continued in their efforts to develop approved therapies for obesity. We have followed the results of companies that had come close to obtaining FDA approval for three central nervous system (CNS)-acting antiobesity agents in 2010—only to encounter opposition due to safety concerns. However, two of their agents were approved in 2012. Now the third one was approved in September 2014.

Orexigen/Takeda’s Contrave approved by the FDA

On September 11, 2014, Orexigen Therapeutics (La Jolla, CA) and its partner, Takeda, announced that the FDA had approved their antiobesity agent, Contrave (naltrexone HCI and bupropion HCI) extended-release tablets as an adjunct to diet and exercise for chronic weight management in obese adults [body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 or greater], and in overweight adults (BMI of 27 kg/m2 or greater) who have at least one weight-related comorbid condition (e.g, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, or hypertension).

However, the FDA requires Contrave’s label to carry a boxed warning of increased risk of suicidal thoughts and other psychiatric issues. The label also warns that “The effect of Contrave on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality has not been established.” Orexigen is also required to conduct several post-marketing studies, including studies in pediatric patients, and assessment of the effects of long-term treatment with Contrave on the incidence of major adverse cardiovascular (CV) events in overweight and obese subjects with CV disease or multiple CV risk factors.

The September 2014 approval of Contrave followed the February 2011 issuance by the FDA of a Complete Response Letter requiring extensive clinical studies before Contrave could be approved. In 2010 the FDA had also rejected the applications of two other preregistration antiobesity drugs—Vivus’ Qnexa and Arena Therapeutics’ lorcaserin (Lorqess). Also in 2010, the then-marketed antiobesity drug sibutramine (Abbott’s Meridia) was withdrawn from the market at the FDA’s request.

Concern about long-term safety was the major consideration in all of these cases.

Nevertheless, lorcaserin (rebranded as Belviq) was approved in June 2012, and Qsymia (formerly known as Qnexa) was approved in July 2012.

Thus there are now three CNS-targeting weight-loss drugs on the U.S. market—all of which are “adjuncts to diet and exercise”, all of which work by suppressing appetite, and all of which have safety concerns that require post-marketing studies. Moreover, at least two of these drugs have levels of efficacy less than might be desired. For example, in one trial of Contrave, significant weight loss — defined as the loss of at least 5% of body weight — was achieved by 42% of Contrave-treated subjects, and 17% of subjects in the placebo group. The FDA says that patients taking Contrave should be evaluated after 12 weeks of treatment. Those who have failed to lose at least 5% of their body weight should discontinue Contrave.

Lorcaserin is the least efficacious of these drugs. Qsymia is the most efficacious, with 66.7% of patients on high-dose Qsymia losing at least 5% of body weight, as compared to 17.3% for placebo. The average weight loss in that trial was 10.9% of body weight with high-dose Qsymia and 1.2% with placebo.

A drop in weight of as little as 5% can have positive effects on risk of obesity’s comorbidities (e.g., insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease). Nevertheless, all three of these drugs are aids in management of obesity, rather than effective treatments. Moreover, their potential adverse effects are significant. It must be remembered that it was adverse effects that resulted in the withdrawal from the market of several antiobesity drugs (including sibutramine), and prevented the approval of any obesity drugs at all in 2010.

The FDA’s approval of these three drugs indicates that the agency is more willing to make antiobesity drugs available to patients than it has been previously, even in the face of continuing concerns about long-term safety. Rather than rejecting these drugs, the FDA is handling its concerns about safety via post-marketing studies, and restricted distribution of the drugs.

Liraglutide for treatment of obesity?

Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk is awaiting the FDA’s decision on the approval of its high-dose formulation of liraglutide (Saxenda) for treatment of obesity. An FDA advisory board recommended approval of the agent on September 11, 2014. The drug has an October 20 PDUFA date. The advisory board vote was based on Phase 3 results, which indicated that liraglutide produced an average 8% weight loss in obese subjects, when combined with diet and exercise. 69% of prediabetic obese individuals who were treated with liraglutide also showed no signs of prediabetes after 56 weeks, as compared to 33% for the placebo group.

We have discussed the potential use of liraglutide in treatment of obesity on this blog. A lower-dose formulation of this agent, under the trade name of Victoza, is already approved for treatment of type 2 diabetes. Liraglutide is a recombinant protein drug. It is a member of a class of drugs called incretin mimetics. An incretin is a gastrointestinal hormone that triggers an increase in insulin secretion by the pancreas, and also reduces gastric emptying. The latter effect slows nutrient release into the bloodstream and appears to increase satiety and thus reduce food intake. The major physiological incretin is glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), and incretin-mimetic drugs are peptides with homology to GLP-1 that have a longer half-life in the bloodstream than does GLP-1.

Although liraglutide does not act in the CNS, its major mechanisms of action in treatment of obesity appears to be—like CNS drugs—appetite control. Moreover, clinical trial results indicate that liraglutide is more of an aid in management of obesity than an effective treatment. Nevertheless, liraglutide’s antidiabetic effects and lack of CNS adverse effects constitute potential advantages over CNS-acting antiobesity drugs.

Sales of approved antiobesity drugs have been struggling

Despite the excitement over the approval of antiobesity drugs after so many roadblocks, sales of these drugs have fallen short of estimates. Estimates for Qsymia sales have fallen to $141 million in 2016 from the $1.2 billion projection for 2016 when the drug was approved in 2012. Eisai estimates that Belviq will generate $118 million in sales. Producers and marketers of these two drugs hope that the approval of Contrave will drive patient acceptance of all three CNS-targeting antiobesity drugs. At least one analyst projects that Contrave may achieve $740 million in sales in 2018.

If it is approved, Saxenda may have a sales advantage over the CNS-targeting drugs, since the low-dose formulation, Victoza for type 2 diabetes, is an established drug, with relationships with doctors and insurers already in place. Analysts project that liraglutide (branded as Saxenda) will generate $556 million in weight-loss sales in 2018, in addition to $3.2 billion for the antidiabetic low-dose formulation, Victoza.

A big factor in the level of sales of antiobesity drugs has been insurance reimbursement. It is estimated that some 50 percent of people with private insurance receive at least some coverage for diet drugs. However, insurers tend to classify Qsymia and Belviq as third-tier medications, requiring large patient co-payments. Moreover, Medicare and Medicaid do not pay for the drugs. Analysts hope that the approval of Contrave will result in expanded insurer coverage.

Obesity specialist company Zafgen continues to make progress

The vast majority of efforts to develop antiobesity drugs—over several decades—have been aimed at targeting the CNS. However, obesity is a complex metabolic disease that involves communication between numerous organs and tissues, notably adipose tissue (white, brown, and beige fat), skeletal muscle, the liver, the pancreas, the brain (especially the hypothalamus), the digestive system, and the endocrine system. The pathophysiology of obesity is also related to that of other major metabolic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes.

The mechanistic basis of obesity is not well understood, even though breakthroughs in understanding aspects of this disease have occurred in recent years. Thus there is great need for continuing basic research, and for novel programs aimed at development of breakthrough treatments for obesity based on non-CNS pathways.

One company that has been active in this area is Zafgen (Cambridge, MA), which we have been following on this blog. On June 24, 2014, Zafgen announced the closing of its Initial Public Offering. Zafgen is thus a young company pursuing an alternative approach to antiobesity drug discovery and development that has been able to go public.

In our May 23, 2012 article on this blog, we discussed Zafgen’s lead drug candidate, beloranib (ZGN-433). Beloranib is a methionine aminopeptidase 2 (MetAP2) inhibitor, which exerts an antiobesity effect by downregulating signal transduction pathways in the liver that are involved in the biosynthesis of fat. Animals or humans treated with beloranib oxidize fat to form ketone bodies, which can be used as energy or are excreted from the body. The result is breakdown of fat cells and weight loss. Obese individuals do not usually have the ability to form ketone bodies.

On June 22, 2013, Zafgen announced the interim results of an ongoing double blind placebo-controlled Phase 2 study of beloranib in a group of obese men and women. These results were presented in a poster session at the American Diabetes Association’s 73rd Scientific Sessions in Chicago on June 23, 2013.

Subjects had a mean age of 40.3 years, a mean weight of 101.2 kg (223.1 lbs.), and a mean BMI of 37.9 kg/m2 at the beginning of the study. 38 subjects receiving 12 weeks of treatment in the full trial were randomized to one of three doses of subcutaneous beloranib vs. placebo. The subjects were counseled not to change their usual diet and exercise patterns—this protocol thus differed from trials of the agents discussed earlier in this article. The interim analysis was of results from the first 19 subjects who completed 12 weeks of treatment.

Beloranib appeared safe and showed dose responsive weight loss. After 12 weeks, subjects on 0.6 mg, 1.2 mg, or 2.4 mg of beloranib lost an average of 3.8, 6.1 and 9.9 kg, respectively (8.4, 13.4, and 21.8 lbs.), versus 1.8 kg (4.0 lbs.) for placebo; these results were statistically significant. In addition, beloranib treated subjects showed improvements versus placebo in CV risk factors including levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and C-reactive protein. Sensation of hunger also was reduced significantly.

Subcutaneous beloranib treatment over 12 weeks was generally well-tolerated. There were no major adverse events or deaths.

If later clinical trials confirm these interim Phase 2 clinical results, beloranib may have significant advantages over the three approved CNS-targeting drugs and over Saxenda, because of beloranib’s apparent benign adverse-effect profile, and major effects on weight and fat loss, even in the absence of diet and exercise advice. However, beloranib is years away from reaching the market for treatment of severe obesity with no known genetic causation.

Zafgen is attempting to develop beloranib not only as a superior alternative to “diet drugs”, but also as an alternative to bariatric surgery. In order to obtain approval for that indication, beloranib must (in late-stage, long-term clinical trials) demonstrate both the degree of weight loss and the positive metabolic effects seen in severely obese patients treated via bariatric surgery.

In addition to developing beloranib for severe obesity, Zafgen is developing this drug for treatment of the rare genetic disease Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS). Patients with PWS exhibit such symptoms as low muscle mass, short stature, incomplete sexual development, cognitive disabilities, and a chronic feeling of hunger that can result in life-threatening obesity. PWS is the most common genetic cause of life-threatening obesity. Many children with PWS become morbidly obese before age 5.

In January 2013, the FDA granted Zafgen orphan designation to treat PWS with beloranib. On July 10, 2014, the European Commission also granted orphan drug designation for beloranib for this indication. These regulatory actions were based on the initial results of Zafgen’s Phase 2a clinical trial of beloranib in PWS. This trial showed improvements in hunger-related behaviors and body composition, including reductions in body fat and preservation of lean body mass.

On October 1, 2014, Zafgen announced that it had begun a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase 3 clinical trial of beloranib in obese adolescents and adults with PWS (clinical trial number NCT02179151). The company is also testing beloranib in Phase 2 trials in obesity due to hypothalamic injury, and is in preclinical studies with a second-generation MetAP2 inhibitor for treatment of general obesity.

Energesis Pharmaceuticals

The Biopharmconsortium Blog has also been following an earlier-stage company, Energesis Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA), whose approach to developing antiobesity therapeutics is based on targeting brown fat. On June 19, 2014, FierceBiotech and Energesis announced that Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson Innovation had entered into a collaboration with Energesis, aimed at identifying agents that stimulate the formation of new brown fat in order to treat metabolic diseases.


The antiobesity drug field, which in 2010 was the domain of a “pall of gloom”, is now populated by three approved CNS-targeting drugs, perhaps to be soon joined by Saxenda. These drugs promise to give patients and physicians a new set of tools to aid in the management of obesity. However, the history of the CNS-targeting obesity drug field is littered with tales of the withdrawal of drug after drug due to unacceptable adverse effects. Moreover, the market—and especially payers—have not yet fully accepted the new antiobesity agents.

As readers of this blog well know, we favor approaches to treatment of obesity and its comorbidities based on targeting somatic physiological pathways that appear to be at the heart of the causation of obesity, not just the CNS. The progress of Zafgen in addressing a set of these pathways is very encouraging. However, these results must be confirmed by Phase 3 clinical trials.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

RNAi therapeutics stage a comeback

Transthyretin protein structure

Transthyretin protein structure

Not so long ago, the once-promising field of RNA interference (RNAi)-based drugs was on the downswing. This was documented in our August 22, 2011 article on this blog, entitled “The Big Pharma Retreat From RNAi Therapeutics Continues”. That article discussed the retreat from RNAi drugs by such Big Pharma companies as Merck, Roche, and Pfizer. In our March 30, 2012 blog article, we also mentioned leading RNAi company Alnylam’s (Cambridge, MA) January 20, 2012 downsizing. This restructuring was made necessary by Alnylam’s inability to continue capturing major Big Phama licensing and R&D deals, as it had once done.

As we discussed in our August 22, 2011 article, the therapeutic RNAi (and microRNA) field represented an early-stage area of science and technology, which may well be technologically premature. This level of scientific prematurity was comparable to that of the monoclonal antibody (MAb) drug field in the 1980s. Big Pharmas did not have the patience to continue with the RNAi drug programs that they started.

In that article, we cited an editorial by oligonucleotide therapeutics leader Arthur Krieg, M.D. This editorial discussed the issues of therapeutic RNAi’s scientific prematurity, but predicted a rapid upswing of the field once the main bottleneck–oligonucleotide drug delivery–had been validated.

The January 2014 Alnylam-Genzyme/Sanofi deal

Now–as of January 2014–there is much evidence that the therapeutic RNAi field is indeed coming back. This is especially true for Alnylam. On January 13, 2014, it was announced that Genzyme (since 2011 the rare disease unit of Sanofi) invested $700 million in Alnylam’s stock. Alnylam called this deal “transformational” for both Alnylam and the RNAi therapeutics field.

Genzyme had previously been a partner in developing Alnylam’s lead product patisiran (ALN-TTR02) for the treatment of transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis (ATTR). [ATTR is a rare inherited, debilitating, and often fatal disease caused by mutations in the transthyretin (TTR) gene.] Under the new agreement, Genzyme will gain marketing rights to patisiran everywhere except North America and Western Europe upon its successful completion of clinical trials and approval by regulatory agencies. Genzyme will also codevelop ALN-TTRsc, a subcutaneously-delivered formulation of patisiran. Intravenously-delivered patisiran is now in Phase 3 trials for a form of ATTR known as familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy (FAP), and ALN-TTRsc is in Phase 2 trials for a form of ATTR known as familial amyloidotic cardiomyopathy (FAC).

The Alnylam/Genzyme deal will also cover any drugs in Alnylam’s pipeline that achieve proof-of-concept before the end of 2019. Genzyme will have the option to development and commercialize these drugs outside of North America and Western Europe.

On the same day as the announcement of the new Alnylam/Genzyme deal, Alnylam acquired Merck’s RNAi program, which consists of what is left of the former  Sirna Therapeutics, for an upfront payment of $175 million in cash and stock. (This compares to the $1.1 billion that Merck paid for Sirna in 2006.) Alnylam will receive Merck’s RNAi intellectual property, certain preclinical drug candidates, and rights to Sirna/Merck’s RNAi delivery platform. Depending on the progress of any of Sirna/Merck’s products in development, Alnylam may also pay Merck up to $105 million in milestone payments per product.

Alnylam’s Phase 1 clinical studies with its ALN-TTR RNAi drugs

In August 2013, Alnylam and its collaborators published the results of their Phase 1 clinical trials of ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02 (patisiran) in the New England Journal of Medicine. At the same time, Alnylam published a press release on this paper.

ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02 contain exactly the same oligonucleotide molecule, which is designed to inhibit expression of the gene for TTR via RNA interference. They differ in that ALN-TTR01 is encapsulated in the first-generation version of liponanoparticle (LNP) carriers, and ALN-TTR02 is encapsulated in second-generation LNP carriers. Both types of LNP carriers are based on technology that is owned by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) and licensed to Alnylam.

Tekmira’s LNP technology was formerly known as stable nucleic acid-lipid particle (SNALP) technology. Alnylam and Tekmira have had a longstanding history of collaboration involving SNALP/LNP technology, as described in our 2010 book-length report, RNAi Therapeutics: Second-Generation Candidates Build Momentum, published by Cambridge Healthtech Institute. Although the ownership of the intellectual property relating to SNALP/LNP technology had been the subject of litigation between the two companies, these disputes were settled in an agreement dated November 12, 2012. On December 16, 2013, Alnylam made a milestone payment of $5 million to Tekmira upon initiation of Phase 3 clinical trials of patisiran.

LNP-encapsulated oligonucleotides accumulate in the liver, which is the site of expression, synthesis, and secretion of TTR. As we discussed both in our book-length RNAi report, and in an article on this blog, delivery of oligonucleotide drugs (including “naked” oligonucleotides and LNP-encapsulated ones) to the liver is easier than targeting most other internal organs and tissues. The is a major reason for the emphasis on liver-targeting drugs by Alnylam and other therapeutic oligonucleotide companies.

To summarize the published report, each of the two formulations was studied in a single-dose, placebo-controlled Phase 1 trial. Both formulations showed rapid, dose-dependent, and durable RNAi-mediated reduction in blood TTR levels. (Both mutant and wild-type TTR production was suppressed by these drugs.)

ALN-TTR02 was much more potent than ALN-TTR01. Specifically, ALN-TTR01 at a dose of 1.0 milligram per kilogram, gave a mean reduction in TTR at day 7 of 38%, as compared with placebo. ALN-TTR02 gave mean reductions at doses from 0.15 to 0.3 milligrams per kilogram ranging from 82.3% to 86.8% at 7 days, with reductions of 56.6 to 67.1% at 28 days. The main adverse effects seen in the study were mild-to-moderate acute infusion reactions. These were observed in 20.8% of subjects receiving ALN-TTR01 and in 7.7% (one patient) of subjects receiving ALN-TTR02. These adverse effects could be managed by slowing the infusion rate. There were no significant increases in liver function test parameters in these studies.

The results of these studies have established proof-of-concept in humans that Alnylam’s TTR RNAi therapies can successfully target messenger RNA (mRNA) transcribed from the disease-causing gene for TTR. Alnylam also said in its press release that these results constitute “the most robust proof of concept for RNAi therapy in man to date”, and that they demonstrate proof-of-concept not only for RNAi therapeutics that target TTR, but also for therapeutic RNAi targeting of liver-expressed genes in general. They also note that this represents the first time that clinical results with an RNAi therapeutic have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Other recent RNAi therapeutics deals, and the resurgence of the therapeutic RNAi field

The January 2014 Alnylam/Genzyme/Sanofi agreement is not the only therapeutic RNAi deal that has been making the news in 2013 and 2014. On July 31, 2013, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals (Watertown, MA) secured $60 million in an oversubscribed Series C venture financing. These monies will be used to conduct Phase 1 clinical trials of Dicerna’s experimental RNAi therapies for hepatocellular carcinoma and for unspecified genetically-defined targets in the liver. So far, Dicerna has raised a total of $110 million in venture capital.

Dicerna’s RNAi therapeutics are based on its proprietary Dicer substrate siRNA technology, and its EnCore lipid nanoparticle delivery vehicles.

On January 9, 2014, Santaris Pharma A/S (Hørsholm, Denmark) announced that it had signed a worldwide strategic alliance with Roche to discover and develop novel RNA-targeted medicines in several disease areas, using Santaris’ proprietary Locked Nucleic Acid (LNA) technology platform. Santaris will receive an upfront cash payment of $10 million, and a potential $138M in milestone payments. On January 10, 2014, Santaris announced another agreement to develop RNA-targeted medicines, this time with GlaxoSmithKline. Financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

As in the case of Alnylam, we discussed Dicerna’s and Santaris’ technology platforms in our 2010 book-length report, RNAi Therapeutics: Second-Generation Candidates Build Momentum.

A January 15, 2014 FierceBiotech article reported that RNAi therapeutic deals were a hot topic at the 2014 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, CA. This is a sign of the comeback of the therapeutic RNAi field, and of the return of interest by Big Pharma and by venture capitalists in RNAi drug development.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to  your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

Agios Pharmaceuticals becomes a clinical-stage company!

Agios Efstratios, Greece. Source: Christef

Agios Efstratios, Greece. Source: Christef

In a news release on September 23, 2013, Agios Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA) announced that it had initiated its first clinical study. The company further discussed its early clinical and preclinical programs in its press release on its Third Quarter financial report, dated November 7, 2013.

Specifically, the company initiated a Phase 1 muticenter clinical trial of AG-221 in patients with advanced hematologic malignancies bearing an isocitrate dehydrogenase 2 (IDH2) mutation. The study is designed to evaluate the safety, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and efficacy of orally-administered AG-221 in this patient population. The first stage of the Phase 1 study is a dose-escalation phase, which is designed  to determine the maximum tolerated dose and/or the recommended dose to be used in Phase 2 studies. After the completion of this phase, several cohorts of patients will receive AG-221 to further evaluate the safety, tolerability and clinical activity of the maximum tolerated dose.

We discussed AG-221 in our June 17, 2013 article on this blog. AG-221 is an orally available, selective, potent inhibitor of the mutated IDH2 protein. It is thus a targeted (and personalized) therapy for patients with cancers with an IDH2 mutation.

As we summarized in our June 17, 2013 article, wild-type IDH1 and IDH2 catalyze the NADP+-dependent oxidative decarboxylation of isocitrate to α-ketoglutarate. Mutant forms of IDH1 and IDH2, which are found in certain human cancers, no longer catalyze this reaction, but instead catalyzes the NADPH-dependent reduction of α-ketoglutarate to R(-)-2-hydroxyglutarate (2-HG). Agios researchers hypothesized that 2HG is an oncometabolite. They further hypothesized that developing mutant-specific small molecule inhibitors of IDH1 and IDH2 might inhibit the growth or reverse the oncogenic phenotype of cancer cells that carry the mutant enzymes.

As we further discussed in our article, Agios researchers published two articles in the journal Science in May 2013 that support these hypotheses. The researchers showed that drugs that inhibit the mutant forms of IDH1 and IDH2 can reverse the oncogenic effects of the mutant enzymes in patient-derived tumor samples. These results constitute preclinical support for the hypothesis that the two mutant enzymes are driving disease, and that drugs that target the mutant forms of the enzymes can reverse their oncogenic effects.

In the results reported in one of these research articles, Agios researchers tested a mutant-IDH2 inhibitor in hematologic malignancies (including one model leukemia and one patient-derived leukemia), and showed that treatment with the inhibitor caused differentiation of the leukemic cells to normal blood cells. This preclinical study thus supports the initiation of Agios’ new Phase 1 study of AG-221 in patients with mutant-IDH2 bearing hematologic malignancies.

Additional pipeline news in Agios’ Third Quarter 2013 Report

In addition to the report of the initiation of Phase 1 studies of AG-221, Agios reported  that it had advanced AG-120, a mutant-IDH1 inhibitor, toward Investigational New Drug (IND) filing. The company plans to initiate Phase 1 clinical trials of AG-120 in early 2014, in  patients with advanced solid and hematological malignancies that carry an IDH1 mutation.

Agios also reported in their Third Quarter 2013 Report that the company had advanced AG-348 into IND-enabling studies. AG-348 is an activator of pyruvate kinase R (PKR). Germline mutation of PKR can result in pyruvate kinase deficiency (PK deficiency), a form of familial hemolytic anemia. Agios’ in vitro studies indicate that PKR activators can enhance the activity of most common PKR mutations, and suggest that these compounds may be potential treatments for PK deficiency.

Agios’ AG-348 program is part of its R&D aimed at development of treatments for inborn errors of metabolism (IEM). We discussed this program in our November 30, 2011 article on this blog.

Agios to present preclinical research at the ASH meeting in December 2013

In a second November 7, 2013 press release, Agios announced that it would present the results of the preclinical studies of its lead programs in cancer metabolism and in IEM at the 2013 American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting, December 7-10, 2013 in New Orleans, LA.

Agios researchers will give one presentation on a study of AG-221 treatment in a primary human IDH2 mutant bearing acute myeloid leukemia (AML) xenograft model. They will also present two posters–one on a mutant-IDH1 inhibitor in combination with Ara-C (arabinofuranosyl cytidine) in a primary human IDH1 mutant bearing AML xenograft model, and another on the effects of a small molecule activation of pyruvate kinase on metabolic activity in red cells from patients with pyruvate kinase deficiency-associated hemolytic anemia.

Can Agios Pharmaceuticals become a new Genentech?

On October 13, 2013, XConomy published an article on Agios’ CEO, David Schenkein. The article is entitled “David Schenkein, Cancer Doc Turned CEO, Aims to Build New Genentech”.

As many industry experts point out, the business environment is much different from that in which Genentech (and Amgen, Genzyme and Biogen) were founded, and grew to become major companies. As one illustration of the difference between the two eras, neither Genentech nor Genzyme are independent companies today. Biogen exists as a merged company, Biogen Idec, which between 2007 and 2011 had to fend off attacks by shareholder activist Carl Icahn.

Moreover, this has been the era of the “virtual biotech company”. These are lean companies with only a very few employees that outsource most of their functions, and that are designed to be acquired by a Big Pharma or large biotech company. The virtual company strategy has been designed to deal with the inability of most young biotech companies to go public in the current financial environment. (However, there has been a surge in biotech IPOs in the past year, including Agios’ own IPO on June 11, 2013. So it is possible that the environment for young biotech companies going public is changing.)

Nevertheless, the XConomy article states that when Dr. Schenkein was in discussions with venture capitalist Third Rock on becoming the CEO of one of their portfolio companies, he stated that he wanted “a company with a vision, and investor support, to be a long-term, independent company”. As we have discussed in this blog, and also in an interview for Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), Agios’ strategy is to build a company that can endure as an independent firm over a long period of time, and that can also demonstrate sustained performance. This strategy has been characterized (especially in the 1990s and early 2000s) as “Built to Last”, a term that I used in the interview.

Later, Agios posted a reprint of the C&EN article on its website, which it retitled “Built to Last”. This illustrates Agios’ commitment to “Built to Last”, as is more importantly shown by the company’s financial and R&D strategy.

Even if Agios cannot become the next Genentech, it–as well as a few other young platform companies mentioned in the CE&N article–might become an important biotech or pharmaceutical company like Vertex. However, all depends on the success of Agios’ products in the clinic and at regulatory agencies like the FDA, as well as the future shape of the corporate, financial and health care environment.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or an initial one-to-one consultation on an issue that is key to your company’s success, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.